In her piece “The Living Disappeared” for The California Sunday magazine, reporter Bridget Huber turns the complicated, still-unfolding story of the missing children from Argentina’s military dictatorship into a relatable narrative about loss.
“If you’re really gripped by something and you keep coming back to it over and over again, maybe there’s a reason there. And maybe it’s something to continue to follow, even if it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of logical sense.”
The heroine of the story, 91-year-old Delia Giovanola, searched for her grandson — born in a torture center and raised under a false identity — for 39 years. She was unrelenting, helping to spearhead the search for those missing from the dictatorship, now recognized as the human rights group the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
Giovanola’s search for her grandson Martín is riddled with pain but grounded in perseverance. Martín, who was raised as Diego, finds Giovanola and she regains family in their reunion, decades after she lost her son and daughter-in-law to the dictatorship. But Martín misses out on forming a relationship with his sister, Virginia, who commits suicide before she can meet her brother. And Giovanola recognizes that she and the other Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo are “in danger of extinction,” and so Argentina is at risk of losing their strong-willed storytellers, memory-holders and activists.
The story is full of texture and nuance, and shot through with lovely scenes like this one: “If someone spots a lost child at the beach in Argentina, they put the kid on their shoulders and start to do a slow, rhythmic clap. The people around them join in, and all around the child the clapping gets louder and louder. The frantic parent follows the beat to the kid until they reunite amid whistles and cheers.”
I read Huber’s narrative about the strength of this Argentine grandmother’s love when I was grieving for my own grandmother, who was from Argentina’s northern neighbor Bolivia. Although our circumstances were very different, the shapes of loss felt heart-wrenching and familiar.
I talked to Huber about her account of Giovanola and Martín, and how she hopes the story can resonate with those disconnected from this part of South American history. The answers have been slightly edited for clarity and flow.
How did you find the story? How did you find Delia Giovanola?
Reporting and I guess, at least, gathering string for this story started back in 2010. I went to the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and it’s a two-year program. So, between your first and second year, you do an internship. And so, I had one at the AP in their Southern Cone bureau, which is headquartered in Buenos Aires. So, I went there and it was really a wonderful internship and I got sent out to do a lot of on-the-ground reporting, which was really fun. It was already kind of right around the time that the whole new wave of human rights trials was really getting a lot of traction, so there was a lot of news happening in public life around the issue.
So, my editor sent me out to cover a protest that was being put on by some human rights groups. I kind of just struck up a conversation with a guy there who was around my age, and, as it turns out, he was one of these people who, like Martín, found out—he had found out just a couple months earlier that he was, in fact, born in a torture center and was raised under a false identity, and sort of had this really tragic and convoluted, hard-to-fathom backstory. So, meeting him was sort of a jolt for me, and I started meeting up with him regularly to interview him. I guess I didn’t really realize the extent to which, you know, what had happened during the dictatorship era was still sort of playing out, and still changing people’s lives in these really profound ways.
So that’s really how it started. Over the course of that summer, I did a series of interviews with him. And then later, I went back and got some more interviews, and hoped to do something with what I was learning and gathering. But it took a long time to kind of make something happen. I just kind of gathered string for a really long time, and kind of fell in and out of touch with the family, and then, was back in touch with them, and pitched the story to California Sunday. And I went and I did more interviews with this first family that I had thought I would write about, and then while I was there, someone that I was interviewing had mentioned that there were a few people that live in the U.S. who the Argentine government thinks are children of the disappeared or that they would at least like them to have DNA tests to either confirm or refute the idea. And he started telling me the story about Delia Giovanola. And I didn’t really know her story, you know? I kind of got connected with her through some different channels, and she was actually in Miami when I was in Argentina, so I didn’t get to meet her there. But she was in Miami visiting her grandson. So, I went and spent time with them there.
Then, I had two stories that I was trying to weave together. My first draft was this sort of long, convoluted draft where I tried to kind of weave the stories of these two families together. And my editor, I think really wisely, said, “You know, I think you need to pick one. It’s too confusing. There’s too much detail.” And so then I had to choose which one.
It was hard. I had spent all of this time with this other family. It was a really wrenching decision, actually, and they left it up to me, which I appreciate, but at the time I was just like, “Oh my god!” I mean, I even—tears were shed, you know? But in the end, I think it was the right decision. So, I decided to go with Delia and Diego’s story in the end.
What did it take to earn Delia’s trust? How did you get her to feel comfortable with you writing about such intimate topics, like her granddaughter Virginia’s suicide?
Well, Delia is a very open and just warm kind of, enveloping person. One thing that I had trouble getting across in the piece is just that she’s extremely funny. She’s kind of mischievous. She’s a very sociable person. But she is also a woman who had lived through unimaginable sorrows, and those are kind of right on the surface too. You know, it isn’t as if she’s sort of, sugar-coating what she’s lived through. She’s also searched for her grandson for 39 years and so, a big part of that search has been telling the story over and over and over again in the hopes that it would somehow reach some person who had a doubt about where he came from, or a doubt about some kid in their neighborhood. So, in a way, she’s used to telling the story, and was kind of happy to tell it again, and sort of launched into it quite easily.
But, that said, having to get the kind of—to ask her to go into the level of detail that I had to ask her to go into—you know, that was difficult. So to ask her to relive the moment when she found out about Virginia’s suicide, I was a nervous wreck and I felt horrible asking. And you know, and, yeah, and she was really emotional talking about it. I mean, it was a really difficult, and kind of profound conversation that we had about it.
One thing that was interesting was interviewing Diego. He hadn’t spoken publicly about what had happened — you know, his situation — before I interviewed him. And so you have, on one hand, Delia, who had been literally talking about it to everyone who would listen for years now, and Diego, who found himself in the middle of this crazy situation and was still coming to terms with it. So that was also interesting to try to figure out. Like he was very much still processing what had happened, what this meant about who he is and who he will be going forward. And also kind of, I think deciding how sort of public he wanted to be, and also the weirdness of—in Argentina, this is big news. And in the U.S., he’s just a regular guy. People don’t really know this whole history. Anyways, I thought that it was interesting to try to figure out how to also balance the narrative, like when one person is, for a lot of different reasons, able to speak about something a lot more. There’s just more material and record there. And someone who is still kind of wrapping their head around it, you know?
It’s such a gift to be able to work on stories over a long period of time, and continue to go back to conversations with people, and think about them, and have them think about the conversation and come back to you. It obviously doesn’t always work out that way, but when it does, I think it’s really rich.
What takeaways do you have from re-creating moments in this piece?
I had to talk to one person who was really helpful, and who I was really grateful to — a close friend of Virginia’s, who was able to give me some different insight. More of a pure take on what Virginia was going through, instead of having everything mediated through Delia, who had her own kind of take on, you know, how she lived. So, it was nice to incorporate her sense of Virginia into it.
I drew on a lot of sources, I guess. Obviously interviews. Virginia, you know there’s a big hole, right? I mean, I couldn’t interview her. But, she left these letters and she also had helped make a documentary about her search. So, those were really valuable materials and kind of helped me get more of a sense of her.
And then, just kind of trying to read and absorb. There’s a lot of testimonials that came through more like a truth commission. They were called truth trials, that weren’t more like a criminal justice proceeding, but a lot of people testified. News clippings. Just trying to draw from as many sources as I could. Books. Create these scenes by drawing on different accounts and pulling in different elements as I could.
“It’s such a gift to be able to work on stories over a long period of time, and continue to go back to conversations with people, and think about them, and have them think about the conversation and come back to you.”
There’s so much historical context in this story. How did you narrow it down and weave it into the piece? Did you strike any trouble in doing so?
That was really a challenge. I have to say, I had a fantastic editor at California Sunday magazine, Francesca Mari, who really helped me figure that out. It’s so hard, especially when you’ve been immersed in something for a long time, to keep perspective on A) what your average person knows, and B) what they want to, and need to, know. So, she helped me streamline the historical, political context.
I really wanted to make sure that people came away with some idea of how this whole process is continuing to unfold in Argentina. That it isn’t just something that happened 40 years ago. But, sort of figuring out a way to not pop people out of the story for too long and try to tell it through Virginia and Delia’s own experiences as much as possible.
What do you hope your readers will take away from this story, and has anything changed? What struck you most in telling it?
I wouldn’t say that there has been any major sort of development in the story. At least, not that I’m aware of. I guess for me, you know, I felt like this was a story that just sort of grabbed hold of me in 2010. And I couldn’t really shake it over all those years. I kept coming back to it and I kept hoping to find a way to tell it. There were a lot of obstacles that presented themselves along the way, and I guess in the end, I was so happy to be able to have told the story. And I loved working with California Sunday, and I just felt really grateful for the whole process.
I guess that it did sort of vindicate that feeling. If you’re really gripped by something and you keep coming back to it over and over again, maybe there’s a reason there. And maybe it’s something to continue to follow, even if it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of logical sense.
Is there anything else you want to mention, or anything that other journalists/ reporters might learn from your experience?
One of the things that I was really lucky to be able to sort of rely on was this incredible, rich documentation. This body of evidence and testimony that Argentines have amassed over the last — since 1983. And people telling their stories. People who are survivors, who continue to tell their stories over and over again, even though they’re incredibly traumatic, painful experiences. Just that sort of body of narrative that’s there that I was able to sift through and draw on in a small way. That was where all of the details and the story really was. Even, you know, Virginia left a record. So, just all of these things that go beyond interviews and that are there for us, if we can figure out how to access them.